Fédon’s bequest

The 1795 rebellion led by the mixed-race planter Julien Fédon established a short-lived black republic in Grenada, writes James Ferguson — and has shaped the island’s economy to this day

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

It may be hard to imagine it now, but two centuries ago the tiny islands of the Eastern Caribbean were at the centre of a fierce geopolitical struggle between rival superpowers: Britain and France. The late eighteenth century, with the United States still in its infancy, witnessed a peak in hostilities between the old European adversaries, and the Caribbean was at the front line of the fighting. It is rather unfashionable today to emphasise the role of European colonial conflict in Caribbean history, but the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams insisted that the region’s early modern history made the islands “the pawn of European power politics, the cockpit of Europe, the arena of Europe’s wars hot and cold.”

Grenada was at the centre of this arena. As the ebb and flow of Anglo-French aggression produced war after war in Europe, so too in the Caribbean colonial outposts such as Grenada were vulnerable to raids and even full-scale invasion. The imposing forts that tower over the island’s capital, St George’s, are testimony to the instability that prevailed in the region and the fear of sudden attack.

Grenada was captured by the British in March 1762 in the course of the Seven Years’ War — a conflict that convulsed Europe, North America, and even parts of Africa — and this change of colonial ownership was confirmed the following year in the Treaty of Paris. The British ruled for sixteen years (during which there was an earthquake, a slave revolt, and a devastating fire) before the French retook the island during the American War of Independence in July 1779. The majority free population of French-speakers (the real majority by now, of course, were enslaved Africans) may have celebrated, but their relief was to be short-lived. In September 1783 the Treaty of Versailles handed Grenada back to the British.

Most non-slaves (white colonists and freed former slaves) were of French descent or had French sympathies. The imposition of British rule was, to say the least, unwelcome, and the new colonial authorities did little to make things better by discriminating against the French-speaking Roman Catholic community. The Governor from 1792, the Scotsman Ninian Home, was considered a fanatical Protestant, and repressive legislation was enacted making Catholic baptisms and weddings invalid, and barring Catholics from voting and public office.

Resentment festered, and anti-British sentiment was further fuelled by news of the French Revolution and, particularly, of the radical brand of Jacobinism that had appeared in the French stronghold of Guadeloupe. Here, Victor Hugues, a commissioner sent by the revolutionary French government, was tasked with supporting anti-British slave rebellions throughout the Caribbean in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. At the same time, the Haitian Revolution, which had begun in 1791, was sending shockwaves throughout the region. The old order of colonial rule and slavery seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

 

So it was that 220 years ago, on 2 March, 1795, a revolt broke out against British rule in Grenada. Its chief ringleader was a man called Julien Fédon, whose father was a white Frenchman from Bordeaux and his mother a freed black slave from Martinique — in the terminology of the day, this made him a “free mulatto of French extraction.” No image of Fédon exists, but records show that he married in 1780, and in 1791 bought the Belvidere (or Belvedere) Estate in the mountainous west-coast parish of St John. Here on 360 acres, with nearly one hundred slaves, Fédon grew coffee and cocoa.

Why would a slave-owner lead a slave revolt? One theory is that Fédon had a personal grudge, and had somehow been swindled by an English planter when he bought the estate. But there were many other motives: racial, religious, cultural prejudice, all of which were directed by the British against the aspiring mixed-race French-speaking population. Crucially, this minority now saw that they had common cause with the slaves, overwhelmingly Catholic and speaking French Creole patois. Having freed his slaves, Fédon, supported by a handful of mixed-race collaborators, suddenly and unexpectedly launched an attack on the town of Grenville with a hundred freed slaves, killing a dozen British whites and seizing arms. These they added to the weapons supplied by Hugues. Meanwhile, other insurgents had raided the town of Gouyave.

As Fédon’s men returned to Belvidere, they were joined by further groups of slaves, many of whose white masters had fled in panic. Here in the inaccessible mountains they established the rebel headquarters, far from St George’s, where fleeing British colonists sought sanctuary. With surprise on his side, Fédon rapidly took control of the island, with only the tiny capital still in British hands. He also managed to capture Governor Home, who with forty-nine other hostages was shackled in the rebel camp. The colonial authorities were in disarray. Sending messages to other British territories for help and reinforcements, the small garrison in St George’s could only hope to fend off an attack.

But this never came. Instead, a state of stalemate prevailed for several weeks. By April, enough reinforcements had arrived for the British to attempt an assault on Fédon’s camp. It failed, but one of Fédon’s brothers was killed, and in retribution Fédon ordered Home and other hostages to be shot. Emboldened by these events, the rebels gradually tightened their grip on Grenada, and as historian Michael Craton remarks, “at the beginning of 1796, Grenada was effectively a black republic under arms.” It is estimated that some seven thousand former slaves joined the rebellion at its peak. Others continued to work on the land, not as plantation slaves but as peasant farmers producing food

Yet for some reason Fédon and his commanders failed to launch a final assault on St George’s, where the depleted British were dying at a steady rate from yellow fever. Historians have since blamed this apparent hesitation for the ultimate collapse of the insurgency, and by May five thousand reinforcements had arrived. Under the command of General Ralph Abercromby, these troops quickly and efficiently attacked Fédon’s mountain stronghold, overrunning a largely deserted camp. The rebels, it seems, had fled, but not before killing any remaining hostages.

The reprisals taken by the British were brutal and pitiless. Suspected rebels, mostly former slaves, were hanged on the spot. Mixed-race suspects were either executed or deported to Honduras. Kangaroo courts ensured that “justice” was swift and uncompromising. Thousands were killed and tortured. But one — Fédon — escaped. “Fédon himself and his dwindling band somehow passed through the lines and roamed through the high woods,” Craton writes, “their flight transforming them from revolutionary soldiers into legendary outlaws.” Fédon was never captured. It is thought that he drowned when attempting to sail to re-join another brother in Trinidad. Others prefer to believe that his spirit still haunts the remote peaks of Grenada, where today hikers climb through rainforest to reach Fédon’s Camp and the mountain known as Morne Fédon.

A romantic, almost mythical, aura surrounds Fédon’s name, but what is certain is that he changed the course of Grenada’s history. The uprising wrecked British plans to turn the island into another sugar-dominated plantation economy, and caused huge financial damage. Many British planters left, and those who remained avoided full-scale investment in sugar. Instead, Grenada became a largely smallholder society, where coffee, cocoa, spices — and later bananas — covered the lush landscape. It is in no small part thanks to Julien Fédon that today it brands itself as the Caribbean’s Spice Island.